Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:17-24
To the end that my heart may sing praise to you, and not be silent. Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Why did Paul go to Arabia? This is a question that does not have an easy answer. We aren't even sure what Paul means by "Arabia." The trip is not mentioned by Luke in the book of acts and is only briefly mentioned in today's Epistle lesson. It doesn't make sense to us that Paul would take off on his own to an unknown place after experiencing the revelation on the road to Damascus. Wouldn't it make more sense for him to go to those who would understand his experience and be able to tell him about Jesus and the Gospel? Wouldn't it make sense for him to get verification from others who had lived and worked with Jesus?
After all, we know that it is better to have others help us discern God's call rather than do it on our own. We seek help from the church and those we love as we make decisions about our future and our calling. There is a process to follow to ensure that we are not following our own desires or are being tempted into something that is not the right road.
Arabia, according to most experts, was not far from Damascus, and Paul may have simply been referring to the wilderness south of the city. It would not have been unusual for Paul to follow the example of other prophets, including Jesus Christ, to spend some time alone to pray and learn what he needed to know to begin this new work God is calling him to do. He was a zealous Jew and the revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus was a life changing experience. It is no wonder that he wanted to go somewhere to be alone.
N.T. Wright takes this idea a step further, identifying Paul with Elijah. Elijah was a prophet of God who lived during a time when Israel had turned far from Him. Israel, and her kings, had a habit of moving away from God. They began with a good king, someone who had faith in God and was righteous in God's eyes, but their sons and grandsons turned toward the gods of the nations, become more evil with every generation. This happened over and over again. In this particular moment of history, the chain ended with Ahab, about whom it is said, "Ahab the son of Omri did that which was evil in Yahweh’s sight above all that were before him." Ahab married Jezebel, worshipped Baal and built Asherah poles. While the people of Israel continued to worship the Lord God Almighty, they also worshipped the false gods and so had hearts divided.
Elijah upset Ahab by speaking God's Word to him. "As Yahweh, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." There would be a famine in the land and the fault would be on the back of the king who led his people away from the Lord. This made Ahab angry. God sent Elijah away to hide and Ahab searched the world for him, destroying nations in the process.
Elijah ended up at the house of a widow with a son who had nothing to eat. She was not poor; everyone was hungry, but gold does not do you any good if there is no flour or oil to buy. Elijah asked her for a loaf and promised that her small jars of flour and oil would never empty while they helped Elijah. There was food every day for the three because the woman believed what Elijah promised in the name of God. We take up that story in today's Old Testament passage. The writer of 1 Kings tells us, "After these things, the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him." The woman was angry. What was the point of saving their lives if her son was going to die anyway? She thought it would have been better for both of them to die when the flour and oil ran out rather than being left alone. Elijah took the boy, prayed and cried out to God. The Lord heard his cry and gave the boy back his life. The woman, when seeing her son alive again said, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that Yahweh’s word in your mouth is truth." It wasn't enough for their bellies to be filled for them to have faith; they needed to see the life-giving Word at work.
After this time in Zarephath, God sent Elijah back into the world where Ahab was trying to kill him. Elijah challenged Ahab and the prophets of the false gods to a contest. Which would they choose, the Lord God Almighty or the gods of Baal and Asherah? God not only won the contest, He destroyed all the prophets of the false gods. This made Jezebel furious and Elijah had to flee her wrath. He went into the desert to hide and to tell God that he just could not do the work God was calling him to do. "I have had enough, Lord."
Haven't we all felt the same way? Haven't we all felt at some time that it is ridiculous that God is calling us? Haven't we ever felt like we've had enough? So, Elijah went into the wilderness and had a life-changing experience with God. It was there he got the strength to face the dangers of the world and to follow God wherever He led.
N.T. Wright relates this experience to the statement by Paul. Paul, like Elijah, had a zeal for God. As a matter of fact, Paul was so zealous that he was willing to do whatever was necessary to stop those who were not living according to Jewish law. We see this in the story of Stephen, who was stoned at the word of Saul/Paul. The life of Paul changed dramatically when he met Jesus. He was chasing, and even calling for the death of, the people who were following The Way. How could he then go on to support this new faith or even share this new faith with the Gentiles? He needed time. In the Epistle to Galatia, Paul told the church about how he came to be the Apostle to the nations.
Wright paraphrases Paul's letter: "On the surface, Paul is saying: 'I did not learn my gospel from other human beings, but from the one true God, through the revelation of his son. You Galatian ex-pagans need not suppose that you must go over my head to a message from Jerusalem, a message about Jewish ethnic identity, zeal for Torah, and the victory of the true God against paganism. I know all about that battle, and it was that that I renounced because of the gospel revelation.'
"Underneath this, the Elijah motif is saying: 'I stood in the tradition of "zeal" going back to Phinehas and Elijah, the tradition that the Maccabean martyrs so nobly exemplified. Indeed, my persecution of the church was inspired by exactly this tradition. But the God of Israel called me, like Elijah, to step back from this zeal and to listen to him afresh. When I listened, I heard a voice telling me that the messianic victory over evil had already been won, and that I and my fellow Jewish Christians were the true remnant, saved by grace and marked out by faith, apart from ethnic identity and works of Torah. I therefore had to renounce my former zeal, and announce the true Messiah to the world.'"
In that wilderness, Paul experienced the same whisper of God, confirming and strengthening him for the ministry ahead. Then he went back to Damascus and eventually to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, who then could act as a witness on his behalf. When other Christians they were amazed that this man who was once zealous against them was now one of them. That time in Arabia, wherever that might be, was a time of death and resurrection for Paul. He died to his old self and was raised to new life in Christ, filled with the courage and the gifts necessary to do the work that was so different than his former life as a Pharisee.
The Old Testament and Gospel lessons are stories of people being raised from the dead. This type of resurrection can be seen with the eyes. There were witnesses who saw and rejoiced when the widow of Nain's son arose at Jesus' word, especially his mother. The widow of Zarephath saw her own son come back to life by the prayers of the prophet Elijah. Spiritual resurrection, like that which was experienced by Paul, is not so clearly seen with our eyes. We only know that people have been changed when we see those changes in word and deed. Peter and the others saw Paul was a different man and they believed that it was the work of God.
I don't know about you, but I have never actually witnessed someone being raised from the dead. I have prayed for it, but was a prayer that God did not answer as I had hoped. Yet, I am comforted by the reality that the one for whom I prayed had experienced the real resurrection, the one that comes by faith. The question I've had to ask myself is, "Why raise someone to a life in which they will once again die, when they already have the life which will last forever?" There are stories of people who have claimed to have died and been made alive again. There are stories out of Africa where there is a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit. We want to hear these stories because we want to see God's power over death in a very real way, but our calling is something far greater.
We are called to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, to share Him with those, to see that God does give new life in an extraordinary way. We are no different than Elijah and those widows. We wonder where God is when we are experiencing a difficult time. We ask, "Why?" because we do not understand how God could allow good people to experience hardship. And yet, we know that God is the only one who can bring us through our troubles. We are often like Paul, confused by the experiences that turn our lives upside down, and yet we can hear His still, small voice guiding our way.
Even Elijah didn't understand what was happening. He cried out to God, "Yahweh my God, have you also brought evil on the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" The psalmist asked, "What profit is there in my destruction, if I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth?" We ask similar questions in our day. But God hears our prayers and answers with Jesus Christ who has raised us from death into new life in Him. And we have been raised for a purpose: to call others out of death into life. We’ve been changed by God's grace. Are we ready to live in the purpose to which God has called us out of death and into life?
There are many things that we can and should do as Christians. We are commanded to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned and stand up for the oppressed. We are commanded to love our neighbors with our very lives. We are commanded to pray for our enemies and forgive those who have harmed us. We are commanded to live according to God's Word and to teach others the better way. Most importantly, we are commanded to make disciples of all nations.
We may never experience God's grace in such a miraculous way as raising the dead, but we know people who are spiritually dead. We want to help, but it is often difficult to know what to do. We can't offer them a miracle or even promise a life-changing experience. But we can touch them and give them a word of grace. That's what we are called to do: be Christ for our neighbors as He is revealed through our lives, offering resurrection and restoration to those whose lives are broken. In resurrection and restoration they will see God and say, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that Yahweh’s word in your mouth is truth." They will see His work and proclaim, "To the end that my heart may sing praise to you, and not be silent. Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever!"
A WORD FOR TODAY
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